“This will be a year when the industry starts to tell its story a bit louder.”
8,000 years ago a squirrel could have swung through the trees from Lisbon to Moscow without touching the ground. That’s how abundant forests once were across Europe. This was just one of many interesting facts given out by Berry Wiersum, CEO at paper-based packaging company Sappi Europe, when he gave a snapshot of the European forest bioeconomy at the 8th Nordic Wood Biorefinery Conference (NWBC). This event – a leading meeting forum for wood biorefinery professions – took place at the Scandic Marina Congress Centre in Helsinki, Finland, on 23-25 October and was hosted by VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland.
Delegates also heard how the forest-based biomass industry was helping to build a bioeconomy at a time when impending threats of climate change and peak oil were driving the world towards increased use of biomass for chemical compounds and other materials. Wood density in Europe is also growing.
Following on from the conference, Liz Gyekye, senior content manager at Bio-Based World News, caught up with Berry (pictured left) to ask him five in-depth key questions on current market trends. Read the full interview below:
Liz Gyekye (LG): What defined the forest-based bioeconomy for you this year compared to 2017?
Berry Wiersum (BW): There has been considerable speed in two areas. First, the industry asked ‘how do you use lignin for materials?’ A lot of research has gone into this. A lot of companies, including ours, have launched new products or unveiled pilot plants for either composites, sugars or materials in general, which are going to replace fossil fuel-based materials. Second, the frenetic attack on plastics has occurred this year. This has not come from industry, but from NGOs and David Attenborough’s great documentary Blue Planet II. This has shocked politicians into activity. These two things were very big drivers in 2018.
Another driver is the change in climatic conditions. The summer that we had in Europe this year made everybody sit up. You can see that a long, hot summer without rain can cause damage all over Europe. You get forest fires in Sweden, and draught conditions in Netherlands. This is concentrating people’s minds more on the need to act to tackle climate change.
The recent landmark report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) shocked an awful lot of politicians and observers. It has strengthened the case for climate change politicians to enforce more activities to tackle the climate change problem. Another IPCC report unveiled this year described how industry would have to drastically cut its emissions to combat climate change. This is also very far reaching.
Essentially, there are a number of different influences that will help to push investment into cleaner technology and help the switch from plastics to paper. These influences will also help to promote the complete use of trees, rather than the partial use of trees. If you make pulp today, you are normally just using one third of the tree. If you are making pulp, the lignin is often just burnt as a fuel.
Elsewhere, the European Commission has recently launched its 2050 climate strategy, which set out its vision to deliver net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. There will be technology to help the pulp and paper industry reduce its emissions. I suspect that we are going to see a powerful speeding up of developments in research and pilot schemes for demonstration units for a number of these technologies.
Separately, there will be a drive to replace certain types of plastics by paper because it is just impossible to recycle certain types of plastic. This specifically applies to film. One result might be that brands might start switching from flexible plastics to paper as the paper industry starts to develop proper barrier packaging materials. These barrier materials will have to be anti-moisture, anti-oxidant and anti-grease. We are seeing these barriers being developed very quickly by the industry.
LG: What is happening on the regulatory side?
BW: In the European Commission’s recent 2050 strategy document, biomass is considered to be carbon neutral and there is more of an emphasis on reusing it. It acknowledges that sustainable biomass has an important role to play in a net-zero greenhouse gas emissions economy. The Commission is also keen to move away from subsiding the burning of biomass for energy, particularly because there have been a number of energy plants in the EU that were burning wood. They were cutting down forests, turning them into pellets and then claiming that they were carbon neutral, which is a waste of good wood.
There is a move now to say “we recognise that biomass is carbon neutral, but we are anti-subsidy and we want to encourage the reuse of biomass either from wood or recycling paper”.
The real question is whether legislation will move away from encouraging burning biomass and saying that this isn’t carbon neutral. This debate has been taking place within the European Commission for the past several years, and there is merit on both sides of the argument.
Elsewhere, we are going to see pressure on demand for wood increase in the future, as it will not only be used for paper and housing, but used for new materials as well. You already have a growth in wood density in European forests. This is because good forest management is making the density of the forests go up. You now have an increase in the surface area which is dedicated to forests in Europe. The pressure on wood is going to increase. Therefore, legislators are bound to favour the usage that guarantees the reuse of wood rather than setting fire to it.
A carbon sink is a forest, ocean or other ecosystem viewed in terms of its ability to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The view that the most efficient carbon sink is a managed forest compared to an unmanaged one is gaining credence. The most efficient carbon sink is a managed forest.
Separately, the European Union’s single-use plastics directive, which is scheduled for publication in February of next year, will also change the face of packaging completely when it comes into force. Under the proposed directive, items such as plastic straws, cotton swabs, disposable plastic plates and cutlery would be banned by 2021, and 90% of plastic bottle recycled by 2025. It specifically addresses packaging you use “on the go”. For instance, coffee cups could start being made of paperboard, with the inner plastic lining removed. This gives the paper industry a challenge to find a solution to this.
However, the legislation is still quite purist in its outlook. It will not address larger liquid packaging, cartons, for instance, which contain paper board, polyethylene and aluminium.
LG: What is happening in China?
BW: We like to think that Europeans are the most evangelical in environmental measures and controlling climate change. In terms of legislation and public utterances, this is probably true. However, in China they can just decide that pollution in certain cities need to be tackled and then make swift moves to tackle it. For instance, the air was very polluted in Shanghai around ten years ago. Now, you can see blue skies when you go there. In China, they move very fast and have been moving very quickly to develop technologies that clean up air pollution. When they decide to do something, they go ahead and do it. What I haven’t seen out of China is real progress on materials to replace fossil fuels. In relation to packaging, China is still a long way behind Europe. Europe has a big advantage in terms of innovation in that area, particularly at research level. Europe tends to struggle in turning research into products. In other words, Europe too often offers the research only for China to make the products.
LG: What trends are we expected to see next year?
BW: More than half the papers presented at the 8th Nordic Wood Biorefinery Conference were about lignin. You had a presentation showcasing the use of lignin for electrolytes to make electrolyte batteries. These large-scale batteries can store energy in places where you might have renewable energy. So, you are storing the renewable energy and using it for when the wind stops blowing and the sun stops shining. Technologies are being developed in order to do this. The only conundrum is “at what point are they economically viable?” Legislation that favour these technologies over fossil fuel-based ones can help to solve this issue.
Changes to the automobile industry will also be an interesting development. If you look inside a typical motorcar you will find a lot of plastic. Yet, there are a couple of companies that are developing composites where you can make a blend of polypropylene and cellulose to make a lightweight product stronger than plastic. This becomes interesting for a motor company because they are obsessed with weight and how things look and feel. They are also under increasing pressure to improve their carbon footprint.
Another emerging trend is the use of blockchain technology, which will link sustainably-sourced and traceable product supply with preferential access to trade finance. Blockchain will be used to get data down a value chain which retailers would want. Today, a retailer insists on PEFC and FSC forest certification. However, what they really want is data because they can view the evidence. They will say “we the retailers can trust the data because it is incorruptible”. Over the next few years, we are going to see the data of blockchain technology to control the information from the point where the tree is planted and certified. This will not change anything for the tree growers. They will still have to prove that the tree is grown in an acceptable way and help the local communities living where the trees are planted. The data will then go through the blockchain technology to acknowledge the whole supply chain. As a result, it will attack things like illegal logging and any misuse that is going on within the certification area.
LG: What is 2019 going to bring for the industry?
BW: This will be a year when the industry starts to tell its story a bit louder. We have undergone a strange transformation. The pulp industry was considered an industry that was anti-environmental. We were perceived as knocking down trees and killing forests. Generally, there was pressure from NGOs and advertising campaigns to stop using paper. This has changed in the last three or four years. This is because the industry cleaned up its act, perhaps in Europe more than anywhere else. It started to work on its emissions in a more concentrated way than it did before. Paper also started to become recognised as an inherently environmentally-friendly product. In addition to this, this is an industry which is ensuring that the carbon sinks remain.
I think we will see a whole heap of new products with barriers on them in the next two to three years.
Elsewhere, another challenge for the industry is that many tree species could be replaced by others or decline due to climate change. If you get climate change, you get species that could decline or thrive. This year, there was a huge loss of spruce all over Germany and southern Europe because of lack of rain. If you get climate change, species across Europe will start to change. This will have an impact. However, we do not know what precise impact this will have. It’s something that we have to confront. What species are we going to be short of and what are they going to be replaced by? What sort of products from those trees are going to be the best to make in Europe? These are the questions we have to address.
There is experimentation going on, for instance, in Brazil at the moment with GM trees. In Europe it is a very taboo subject, but less so in Brazil. They are pursuing this because they can influence yields dramatically, but we still do not know if they change properties as well. If the Brazilians are successful, in terms of producing more yields, and changing the soil, this may have an impact on the properties of those trees. However, it is still a very controversial subject.